Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Are there really 500 vulnerable elderly people at risk of harm and neglect in Cornwall's residential care homes?

Just had a quick flick through the Care Quality Commission's online publication of inspection reports.  Filter by Cornwall and then search those rated as "requires improvement" and you can see just how many residential care homes have been given exactly the same rating as the Panorama'd Clinton House, St Austell.

I make it 16 homes, with an average of 30 residents each - so around 500 elderly, vulnerable people, just waiting for an undercover reporter with a hidden camera.  I'm happy to list those homes if anyone wants - one is run directly by Cornwall Council, another by its spawned charity Cornwall Care Ltd; the rest are completely private.

The CQC says there are 227 care homes for the elderly in Cornwall, and none is currently rated "inadequate."  But the lesson of the Clinton House case is that a rating of "requires improvement" is, a bit like the CQC itself, inadequate.

I have previously blogged about the risks of a long memory.  Does anyone else remember this speech in the House of Commons, from 1997?  The sound of chickens arriving home?

Friday, 11 November 2016

Coming soon - the new Jerusalem

Much relief at County Hall yesterday over the St Ives planning decision, in which the courts have ruled that councillors acted properly in allowing a ban on new-build second homes.  The implications for local development plans across Cornwall are immense.

Among those sharing the love was Rob Nolan, Liberal Democrat Parliamentary candidate for Truro and Falmouth (or wherever the Boundary Commissioners decide) who took to BBC Radio Cornwall to denounce the development of green field sites.

Of course, it was only radio - but it sounded remarkably like the same Rob Nolan who chairs Cornwall Council's Strategic Planning Committee, and who recently, and enthusiastically, supported the 236-lodge Camel Creek holiday resort between Wadebridge and St Columb - which is, er, in the open countryside.

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

Will Trump now come to Tintagel?

Congratulations to John Mappin, the Tintagel hotelier whose bank balance is about to be swelled by his astute punt on the outcome of the United States Presidential election.

Mr Mappin correctly identified a growing "sod the lot of them" attitude among voters, responsible for the Brexit decision in the UK earlier this year and which he believed was also prevalent in the US.

I'm listening to Donald Trump on the radio right now.  He sounds less loony than he did yesterday, saying he now wants to "reach out" to those who didn't vote for him.

We shall see.  For the Democrats, the lesson is clear.  They should have gone with Bernie Sanders.

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

Cornwall's care crisis

Last night's news about the Clinton nursing home at St Austell, closed because of as-yet-unspecified "safeguarding" issues, throws sharply into focus the crisis caused by an ageing population and an underfunded service.  For "underfunded" I could just as easily have written "uncaring" - it is all about priorities.

The Clinton home is part of the Morleigh group and can take up to 46 residents.  Many have dementia.
In February, the Care Quality Commission made an unannounced inspection, found several things wrong, and told the management to pull their socks up.  You can read that report here. 

Such was the inspectors' concern - scalding risks, incontinence odours, residents forced to share flannels, inadequate respect for dignity etc - that they went back a few weeks later.  Things appear to have gone downhill from there.  Perhaps the real question is why it took nine months before anyone thought it was a good idea to move the residents somewhere else.

Sunday, 6 November 2016

Never a good idea for a politician to duck a straight question

And just for the record, the correct answer for any leader of the Opposition, when asked if he/she wants a general election, is always "yes."

Saturday, 5 November 2016

Maybe I should move to Finland

For reasons which might become clear over the next few weeks, I am currently investigating a variety of alternative funding models for journalism.  The conventional media - hooked on listicles, click-bait and "sponsored content" - has seen its reputation plummet since I started this game 40 years ago (not that I think it's all my fault.)

There seems no doubt that the British press has set a benchmark for low standards and that the current regulatory framework has completely failed the public. Of all the 28 countries in the EU in 2014-15 the written press had the lowest trust rating, below even Greece and Serbia, according to a EBU report this summer.

Friday, 4 November 2016

Britain after Brexit

This is what's at risk if we allow elected Members of Parliament to debate Article 50:

Thursday, 3 November 2016

Gina Miller - woman of the year?

Nothing like a good old constitutional crisis to sell newspapers (or blogs.)  Expect a good deal of humbug as we now play "hunt the issue."  The Brexit referendum decision is one thing.  The right of Parliament to scrutinise and debate the process is another.  If you want to know who is winning, watch the markets. Within the past few minutes, the pound has risen by 1 per cent.

Wednesday, 2 November 2016

On-farm slaughter, Mad Cow Disease and the balance of risk

Decades ago, long before the then minister John Gummer sent his press office into meltdown by trying – in front of TV cameras - to make his young daughter eat a beef burger when she clearly didn’t want to, I was one of those nosy-parker reporters who kept asking awkward questions about Mad Cow disease.
I’m sorry to say that I made myself thoroughly unpopular with many in the agriculture industry, particularly the National Farmers Union, because it was a story that just would not go away.  When a cat called Max, in Bristol, was shown to have died from Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, ministerial assurances of a so-called “species barrier” suddenly collapsed.

We later learned that there had been a long-running and very serious feud between the Department of Health and what was then called the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food over the level of risk to humans.  I’m happy to report that although scores of humans did indeed die from a variant of the illness, which the government accepted was “most probably” caused by eating infected beef, fears of a widespread epidemic claiming thousands of lives appear to have been overblown.

And although there is the occasional, unexplained, spontaneous outbreak of BSE, the raft of regulations introduced in the wake of Mad Cow disease ensures that the risk to humans remains vanishingly small.

You might therefore think it is surprising that I would now promote the case for relaxing one aspect of those regulations.  I do so for two reasons – first, because the regulation itself fails to do the job it is required to, and secondly because there would be widespread social and economic benefits to rural Cornwall.  This is the rule book relating to mobile on-farm slaughter.

On-farm slaughter used to be widespread, but has now almost completely disappeared because – after Mad Cow disease – the government was determined to clamp down on any risks associated with high-risk offal, particularly from bovine spines.  Instead, cattle now have to be transported – often over long distances – to reach slaughterhouses which meet very high standards of clinical cleanliness.

What makes the existing rule fall on the wrong side of “daft” is that it is still perfectly OK to slaughter “at home” provided you eat the beef yourself, and don’t try to sell it to anyone.  The Food Standards Agency says: “It should be noted that home slaughter is likely to carry a greater human health risk than slaughter that takes place in approved premises.”

But there are still some farmers, particularly smallholders, who do not like the potentially distressing business of transporting livestock to slaughter.  So how do you safely slaughter on your farm?  The answer is that you call an expert – but experts now are themselves becoming very rare.

One such expert is Paul Marshall, of Wadebridge (left,) whose family has worked in the livestock slaughter business for generations.  He could well be the last mobile slaughterman in Britain.  Paul’s job is not without risk.  Not from the livestock, but from bureaucrats.

Technically, if he kills the beast it has been “placed on the market” and both he and the farmer risk prosecution.  If he merely “assists” in the slaughter, then he is in the clear.  The farmer still risks prosecution if any meat is sold because the rules say “the owner must only supply his immediate family.”  So presumably spouse and children are OK, but great uncles and second cousins are not.

From the point of view of protecting human health, the rules are at best very weak.  They should be re-visited and re-written.  There would also be a social and economic benefit to keeping the value of this part of the meat trade within rural areas, rather than see it lost to multi-national corporations.

The rules, of course, have their roots in an office in Brussels.  It might be that Brexit changes the game.  My essential point is that it was not traditional mobile slaughtermen who caused Mad Cow Disease, more than 30 years ago.  It was most probably contaminated cattle feed and a high-tech industrial approach to agriculture.  We might have thrown the baby out with the bathwater.

Before you park your car, think of a word to describe your sex

This is part of a car parking survey which a firm of consultants is currently carrying out on behalf of Cornwall Council.  It certainly made me think.

How would I describe my sex? I'm not sure I understand the question, but surely you can tell by the brilliant way I park my car. You have to feel sorry for the poor official who had to reply on behalf of the council: "It is important to know things like gender orientation so we can target services.  By collecting monitoring information we are able to provide evidence that we are reaching people that need our services and identify when we are not," she said."

Monday, 31 October 2016

The curse of a long memory

The weekend's anti-Devonwall protest at Launceston was a well-supported, jolly affair - making many excellent points in support of its primary objective.  A shame that so much of it appeared to be a platform for the Liberal Democrats, whose position on sharing a constituency with Devon is, at best, rather flexible.

I do not doubt the sincerity with which they campaigned at the weekend.  But readers with long memories will have no trouble recalling what happened the last time a Right-wing government with an anti-democratic agenda tried this, back in 2010/2011.

 That particular Right-wing government was supported by the Liberal Democrats, as the price they were willing to pay for a referendum on proportional representation.

If you want to know how your MP voted in the The Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill on 2nd November, 2010, this blog was there to record it at the time.

All six of Cornwall's MPs, including the Liberal Democrats, voted in favour of Devonwall, and against maintaining the integrity of the border.

Wednesday, 26 October 2016

A heart-breaking disaster

I write this with a barely-suppressed tear in my eye and a couple of text books open on the desk in front of me.  I am searching, painfully, for an answer.  Up in the orchard, I have suffered a disaster.  All of my bees have died.
black-beeTheir demise appears to have been very sudden.  A few weeks ago they were buzzing about very contentedly, and appeared to be very successful at filling their frames with honeycomb.
As a novice beekeeper, I might have failed to notice any distress – but I’m sure I did everything the books advise, trying to strike a balance between observation and not interfering too much.  The hive is in good order and the bees had plenty of food.
The text books offer a bewildering array of possible causes.  The West Country appears to be a relatively dangerous place for bees, with the most recent British Beekeepers Association surveys reporting around 15% of colonies dying here in recent years, every year.  There is much talk of predation by wasps, illnesses caused by the varroa mite virus and other diseases, and – increasingly – the consequences of crop spraying.
Also, my bees were a “rare breed” – the small black Cornish honeybee – which is supposed to be relatively immune to varroa.  But I guess there must be a reason why the breed is rare.  And bees do seem vulnerable all over the world.
A few years ago, a third of the entire bee population of the United States died in one winter.  The precise cause is still a mystery but there is no shortage of beekeepers blaming their over-chemicalised agricultural sector.
A friend told me he thought he had seen one of the large Asian hornets in the village recently.  They were first seen in Gloucestershire a few months ago and have now been confirmed in Somerset.  So far there is no official record of them in Cornwall, but they are deadly to bees.
I did know that in summer, worker bees live on average for only six weeks.  In winter, with less work to do, they can survive for up to five or six months.  Queens live for up to four years, but rely on the worker bees for food.
The experience reminds me of those years, a few decades ago, when my children went through a series of small pets.  The smaller the animal, the more rapidly they seemed to die without warning.  Hamsters, for example, which raced around their cage wheels one day, would be strangely reluctant to wake up the next.
It is not possible to over-estimate the value of bees, particularly in terms of return on investment.  They contribute more than £650m to the UK economy a year through their pollination services. Some 85% of the UK’s apple crop and 45% of the strawberry crop relies on wild bees and managed honeybees to grow.
None of which gets me very far in considering what I can do now.  The floor of the hive is covered in dead bees.  It is heart-breaking.  I welcome suggestions.  I suspect there is nothing else for it, other than to scrub out the hive and start again in the spring.

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

If you think the loss of Marmite was bad, you ain’t seen nothing yet

The cartoonists, of course, had a field day.  We are now at roughly the half-way point between the Brexit vote and the formal “triggering” of our departure from the European Union.  Some of the chickens are coming home to roost.  The impact on rural areas is going to be particularly noticeable.
As I write this, fishermen are meeting in Newlyn to consider what their industry might look like in a few years.  Freed of the Common Fisheries Policy, which was widely blamed for the decline in Cornwall’s maritime interests, there is eager anticipation that “getting our fishing waters back” will now follow.fishing-boat
Well, maybe.  It was only a few years ago that British fishermen needed protection from the Royal Navy as 40 French boats surrounded five British vessels during the so-called “Scallop War” in the English Channel.
Britain only ever had 13 per cent of the EU’s total sea area – but had been allocated 30 per cent of the total catch quota, and had the right to fish just about anywhere.  Perhaps the real problem is that we just don’t eat enough fish – nearly two thirds of all fish landed in Britain are exported to other EU countries.
At the moment, those fish exported from Cornwall to Europe are free of additional taxes.  But outside of the EU, tariffs are almost certain.  I have to say that I don’t see a massive expansion of the Cornish fishing fleet any time soon.
Cornwall’s farmers were divided over Brexit, but none will welcome the prospect of beef tariff exports of 59 per cent.  Dairy farmers whose income depends partly from cheese exports will soon be looking at tariffs of 40 per cent.  Cornish vineyards might not export a huge amount, but a 14 per cent tariff will not help their market to grow.
Plenty of farmers have warned that unless they are allowed to hire (cheap) migrant workers, their crops will have to rot in the ground.  One farmer went on TV last week to predict that Britain will run out of fresh fruit and vegetables in only five days once the migrant agricultural workers have gone.
And the Common Agricultural Policy payments to farmers – worth an average of £16,000 a year, each – will have to be replaced by some hitherto unspecified deal with the UK government.  Good luck with that.
The value of sterling – one of those boring bits of news they stick at the end of each bulletin – will also impact on food prices in supermarkets.  The pound has dropped nearly 20 per cent since June, and will almost certainly fall further and faster as we approach the March deadline for starting formal withdrawal from Europe.
It was the slump in sterling which saw last week’s Great Marmite Crisis, as suppliers and retailers squabbled over which of them should feel the pain.
My friends at Defra tell me to stop worrying and just look on the bright side.  The massive shake-up in food chains could lead to a renaissance in agricultural markets, they say, restoring the Cornish countryside to the green and pleasant land we always thought it was.
Indeed.  Once I have found someone willing to invest in my latest “flying pigs” wheeze I will know that I have arrived in the New Jerusalem.  Rule Britannia!

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Bring back the deposit

Going for my weekly jog along the country lanes I noticed that someone had dumped an old cooker by the side of the road.  Ugly, possibly dangerous, it looked almost as if someone was trying to open as shop dealing in second-hand goods.  A dirty, tattered mattress lay in the hedge alongside, next to a broken armchair.
This week’s news that fly-tipping is on the increase will probably come as no surprise to anyone – the cost-benefit metric changed dramatically a couple of years ago when Cornwall Council introduced charges for taking certain types of rubbish to recycling centres.
Asbestos, tyres and general construction wastes have little “recycling” value and it wasn’t surprising that councils were keen to recover the costs of dealing with them.  But now we know that the cost of not dealing with them is even higher – £67 million across the country, last year.
We are rightly indignant about the louts who spoil the beautiful Cornish countryside, but the problem is actually far worse in urban areas.  Per head of population, the six councils with the worst problems are all in London.  According to Defra, there were nearly one million cases of fly-tipping in England and Wales last year – more than a third of them in London.
While some of this fly-tipping stems from laziness, much of it appears to be organised.  About a year ago we reported how three men were ordered to pay more than £262,000 for illegally dumping more than 60,000 tonnes of waste in South East Cornwall.
The men were a haulier, and two farmers, and between them they had dumped nearly 66,000 tonnes of builders’ waste on farms at Callington and Saltash.
Last year we also reported details released under the Freedom Of Information Act, which showed that Cornwall Council had spent £743,000 cleaning up fly-tipping since 2012, dealing with 12,000 cases.
In the 12 months since the charges were introduced at recycling centres, Cornwall saw an increase of 1,400 in the number of fly-tipping incidents.
All of these statistics make for pretty gloomy reading, so it is comforting to retreat to the world of sepia-tinged nostalgia and recall how, half a century ago, I used to make a few shillings by collecting empty bottles and taking them to the nearest off licence.
The idea was that consumers effectively paid a deposit on a glass bottle, which was then refunded when the empty bottle was returned to a participating retailer.  The system effectively died out in Britain with the advent of disposable plastic bottles.
But in the United States – where bottle deposits are still widespread – figures show that the higher the deposit, the more likely a bottle is returned intact.  In the US, where container deposits are still widespread, there’s a 70% return rate.  Empty bottles are worth five cents.
The deposit scheme is of course simply another way of collecting a tax – and enforcing the principle that the polluter should pay.  Instead of charging council tax payers £67 million for dealing with fly-tipping, manufacturers could (and should?) impose a small “deposit” for the return of an item at the end of its life.
Perhaps with fly-tipping, we should recognise that what we are dealing with is a form of organised crime – and get our retaliation in first.

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

All eyes on St Ives

Once upon a time, at this point in the year, I was likely to be found in a run-down seaside town somewhere, listening to all manner of plots and conspiracies advanced by a small group of desperate people who were trying to take over the country.
It didn’t matter that their political party was actually in government.  They needed their party conference to take notice of their good ideas.

They were not alone.  Every party conference had an exhibition area where lobbyists would hang out, distributing pencils and car stickers to anyone who loitered too long in one spot.  This year, Cornwall Council has sent a small team to each of the main party conferences in the hope that somebody, somewhere, cares anything about what they think at County Hall in Truro.
As news filters back from this year’s conferences, I was reminded of the “Rural Coalition” – a network of organisations which formed in 2014 in the hope of influencing policies ahead of the 2015 general election.
Its founding premise was, and still is, a good one: that rural Britain should consist of vibrant, living, working communities and not become merely gated communities of wealthy retireds, who have been able to exploit house-price inequalities by stripping the equity out of London and the South East.
The question of social housing loomed large in the Rural Coalition “manifesto,” thrust at surprised conference delegates.   There were also other fascinating facts: “By 2028 the over-85 age group is set to increase in rural areas by 186% (compared with 149% in the UK as a whole).  A  growing number needing social care.  By 2029, it is estimated that there will be 930,000 people with social care needs living in rural areas.”
The Rural Coalition, which is led by former Euro MP (and Cornwall councillor) Lord Robin Teverson, was long on good questions but, not surprisingly, short on clever answers.   Its manifesto called for political parties to “Strengthen the role of neighbourhood plans within the planning system where advanced community-led proposals conflict with developer-led proposals that fail to meet local  needs.   Require ‘change of use’ permission for new second homes in rural and coastal areas where there is a shortage of local housing and a high density of second homes.”
Who could be against such a sensible suggestion?  Unfortunately politicians are a good example of clever people who are often surprisingly ignorant.  Margaret Thatcher once told me that Cornwall was “an ice cream county” and seemed genuinely astonished when I gently suggested that schools, hospitals and houses might also be a good thing.
On another occasion, I found myself (accidentally) invited to a party at Rock, by friends of the then-Chancellor Kenneth Clarke.  “And where do you live?” I was asked.  “St Mabyn,” I replied.  “No, where do you really live?” insisted the hostess, astonished that anyone actually lived in the area all year round.  I felt like a refugee in my own country.
Next Wednesday the courts will pass judgement on an attempt by people in St Ives to take control of the situation themselves.   More than 83 per cent of St Ives voters backed a plan to restrict the growth of new second homes – to the fury of estate agents and property developers, who also tend to lobby at party conferences.  The St Ives case has implications for the whole country, and Cornwall in particular.  It is a shame that our fragile democracy now has to hang on the threads of a ridiculously expensive Judicial Review.

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Sam Allardyce - the only England manager ever with 100% record

Bee-ware the Asian hornet

I am constantly surprised by how often science fiction is outdone by science fact.  Up in the orchard, now that autumn is officially here, the bees appear to be slowing down.  They still buzz in and out of their hive, but I detect a sense that they are getting ready for a rest.
They appear completely oblivious to this week’s news that a foreign invader is, at this very moment, plotting their destruction.  And if we lose the bees we lose pollination of crops, with dire implications for our own food supply.  So this really matters.  The Asian hornet has finally arrived in Britain.

Northern winters are thought to be too cold for the Asian hornet, but the milder climate of Cornwall is considerably more benign.  The insects, which reached the Channel Islands earlier this year, are now thought to have reached Gloucestershire in packing crates.  While they are essentially just a big wasp, and pose no direct threat to humans, they have a nasty habit of hanging around bee hives and biting the heads off honey bees.
As Albert Einstein is reported to have said: “If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe then man would only have four years of life left.  No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man.”
I did say that this sounds like science fiction, but it really is science fact.  That is why Defra has established a three-mile surveillance zone around the site in Gloucester where just two Asian hornets were found (one of them was already dead.)  The scientists are using infrared cameras and traps to find any nests.   If any are found, then disposal experts will kill the hornets and destroy them.  More scientists in Yorkshire are investigating the DNA of the Gloucester insects to learn more about how they got here.
And as if all this science wasn’t scary enough, some honey bees have a natural defence to the Asian hornet: they form a mass around the hornet, sacrificing themselves, but raising its temperature to a lethal 45C.  Apparently honey bees in Britain have yet to learn this “heat-balling” technique and so their prospects for survival are not good.
On behalf of my bees, I am naturally very concerned.  But short of camping outside of their hive, armed with a can of insect repellent, I am really not sure what I can do.  Extra vigilance, I suppose.  Apparently this is what I should be looking out for:
  • The Asian hornet (Vespa velutina) queens are up to 3 cm in length; workers up to 25 mm (slightly smaller than the native European hornet Vespa crabro)
  • They are entirely dark brown or black velvety body, bordered with a fine yellow band
  • They have only one band on the abdomen: 4th abdominal segment almost entirely yellow/orange
  • Their legs are brown with yellow ends
  • They have black heads with an orange-yellow face
  • Unlike European hornets, the Asian hornet flies about during the day but ceases activity at dusk.
If you think you have seen an Asian hornet, please take a picture and email it with details of where you saw it to alertnonnative@ceh.ac.uk.

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Not for sale

Among the many things they get up to at County Hall, one operation which I can unhesitatingly single out for praise (yes, you did read that correctly) is the continued existence of the county farms estate.
Not a lot of people know this, but Cornwall Council is one of the county’s biggest farmers.  Against all the economic odds of slash-and-burn privatisations, which have seen almost everything from dustbin collection to leisure centres “outsourced” in some form, the 11,182-acre estate is still in public ownership and continues to provide a gateway into agriculture for more than 100 farmers.
A typical “entry-level” farm will probably be 70-120 acres and would require the tenant to have some other form of income, as survival exclusively on such a small holding is rather improbable.  There are then “progression” farms which can be anything over 150 acres, and might well come with a milk quota of up to 400,000 litres.
Most of these farms have a house and outbuildings as part of the package: ideal for a young family. For the past 21 years, all holdings have been let on fixed-term business tenancies.  Before 1995 the tenancies could be passed down through families.
These farms have a fascinating history.  They were established across the whole country in the 1890s to offer opportunities for young people to get started in farming.  Concern about food security during the First World War, and a desire to provide work for returning soldiers, boosted their fortunes.  By 1926 nearly half a million acres were farmed this way, employing nearly 30,000 farmers.  The importance of these publicly-owned farms was recognised afresh in 1947.
Unfortunately, as with so many things, the 1970s brought major changes.  The 1970 Agriculture Act declared that small farms were not sufficiently profitable, and demanded consolidation – fewer, but bigger farms – and Whitehall also began to demand that local councils should get out of the game completely.
A few years ago Somerset County Council embarked on a controversial campaign to flog off about two thirds of all its farms.  Gloucestershire County Council followed, tempted by the prospect of £125 million in capital receipts.
Since 1964, the acreage of council farms estates across England and Wales has shrunk by nearly 40%.  Combined with consolidation, the number of holdings fell by nearly 80%.  No wonder there are so few farmers under the age of 30.
But it’s not the same story everywhere, as some councils managed to find ways to defy the privatising instincts of the Thatcher-Blair eras.  Cambridgeshire County Council is one of the most enthusiastic farming councils in Britain, with more than 200 tenant farmers across nearly 30,000 acres.  As a capital asset, that estate is worth a bob or two – but it’s also a nice little earner, generating about £4million a year.
According to the most recent report to Parliament, council farms in England and Wales made a net profit last year of more than £10 million, every penny helping to provide public services.  That’s money which would otherwise have had to have been raised from council taxes.
Given that Cornwall Council and its predecessors have reputations which suggests they would sometimes rather hold a car boot sale than provide public services, it is very pleasant to report that the county farms estate continues to play a significant role in our rural life.

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

My Blue Remembered Hills

Lots of clever people with much better qualifications than me have written about the importance of landscape to memory.  All I can say is that I agree with them.
Last weekend, I found myself re-visiting a place where I spent much of my childhood, more than half a century ago. 
This is the village of Hambleden, Buckinghamshire, which I was surprised to note has not changed one bit since I was last there in 1964.

For a few minutes, as I stood next to the brook where I used to play, I was once again eight years old.  The meadow, the surrounding tree line, the narrow country lane, the stone and flint cottages – all were exactly as I last saw them.  The only thing which had changed was me: no longer did it seem appropriate for me to build a dam across the brook, or to wander off into the woods with my home-made bow and arrow, to fight imaginary battles in which I would always triumph.
Those woods are my Blue Remembered Hills.  It is not possible to exaggerate their impact on my formative years.
Hambleden is without doubt one of the prettiest villages in Britain.  It is often used as a film location.  When people think of a typical rural idyll, it must be somewhere like Hambleden they have in mind: not just a set of co-ordinates in space, but also in time.
There has been no new development in Hambleden since the end of the second World War.  Any observer from another planet would note that the only discernible change is the increase in the number of cars.  I slowly came to my senses and pondered how many villages in Cornwall would be able to say the same.  Most see more change in 52 weeks than Hambleden has seen in 52 years.
Looking for any locals who might be able to offer an explanation, I realised that there have actually been some changes to Hambleden.  It was very quiet for a Saturday morning in August.  If there are any children in the village, they were unusually quiet.  In fact, I struggled to find anyone younger than me.
The friendly people who now occupy the houses I used to visit explained that the entire Hambleden estate is now owned by a Swiss financier, one of the wealthiest men in the world and a polo-playing friend of Prince Charles.  In the 1950s and 60s of my childhood, the owner had been Lord Hambleden, the then owner of newsagent chain W.H. Smith (my uncle had been his gardener.)
The Hambledens had done a deal with the National Trust, covenanting to the Trust power to act as a brake on development – even down to the kind of windows locals can use when they need to repair their homes.
The Hambleden butcher’s shop has not been used as a butcher’s shop for decades, but local planning rules mean the shop sign could not be removed. This won’t matter too much to the Swiss financier, for whom the village offers significant revenues in rents, agricultural subsidies and the possibility of advantageous tax arrangements.

But is Hambleden still a working, functional community?  Is it even possible for anywhere in rural Britain to maintain that traditional social and economic fabric?  In Hambleden, the definition of “affordable housing” is governed entirely by tenancy agreements (and by all accounts, the Swiss financier is a reasonable landlord.)
In Cornwall, one of the main arguments used to justify development is that without it, rural communities will die.  In theory the argument is not without some merit, but in practice seems only to delay the inevitable – while scarring the landscape with bungalows, as our villages become gated communities for wealthy retirees.
The closest example to Hambleden that I can think of in Cornwall would be St Michael’s Mount: hardly a sustainable model for every village.
We seem to be confronted with a choice between two evils: do we surrender to the sort of landscape which no-one will want to remember, or do we condemn rural communities to become decaying film extras in some kind of living museum?  I’m glad I’m not a planner.

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Wildlife policy in an environment free of facts

A few years ago I had the pleasure of meeting the then Secretary of State for the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Owen Paterson, at the Royal Cornwall Show.
A pleasant, affable, chap – the sort of bloke I’d cheerfully have supped a beer with – and generous with his time when it came to doing the business-end of the interview.  The problem of bovine tuberculosis was always going to be on the agenda and Owen had recently announced the first of the badger culls.  He knew we were going to talk about it.
I had been expecting the usual plodding, carefully-prepared, fob-off answers, to be delivered strictly in line with some tedious Whitehall script, but Owen was unusually passionate about the issue.  He was also surprisingly (for a Cabinet member) well-informed and willing to engage with the substance of my questions.
But then I’m afraid he said something which knocked the interview completely off the rails.  He started talking about Bessy and Baz.  Bessy and Baz were the Secretary of State’s two pet badgers.  As a child he had adopted two “orphaned” badgers and kept them as pets – first Bessy, who lived in the Paterson household boiler room, and later Baz.
The young Owen used to play “rough and tumble” with these creatures.  He could remember their “unique” smell (I bet he could!) and recalled with fondness how they would eat almost anything.
It was at that point that I started to wonder if it was really such a good idea for Owen to be the man in charge of rural policy in general and wildlife issues in particular.
I was reminded of this interview by last week’s news that (a) the government has just approved a widespread cull of badgers in Cornwall and (b) there is growing concern that many people are now keeping foxes as pets.
A wildlife hospital in Worcestershire has reported a sharp increase in the number of pet foxes it is being asked to treat, prompting warnings that although it is quite legal to keep a fox as a pet, it is hardly ever a good idea.  Even if you don’t mind the smell, the animals are just too highly strung and nervous to be properly domesticated.
But hey, foxes are cute and keeping them indoors as pets satisfies some emotional need – helping us to connect with the natural world.  Right?
As the North Cornwall woodlands now echo to the sound of gunfire, I had to smile at local MP Scott Mann’s contribution to the badger debate; totally on-message for the National Farmers Union and helpfully adding: “A cull of badgers could also benefit our hedgehog population, which has declined hugely in the past 50 years, partly because the badger is their biggest natural predator.”
Not quite in the same league as Owen Paterson’s observation that the cull hadn’t gone to plan because “the badgers are moving the goalposts” but a worthy attempt.
The science which proves that culling badgers does not work – that it actually makes TB in cattle worse – was paid for by the same taxpayers now asked to ignore 30 years of research which they funded.
Following several Freedom of Information questions, Defra has been forced to disclose that the cull costs taxpayers more than £7,200 for every dead badger.  The budget initially forecast had been £30.  Meanwhile in Wales, the government has already shown that badgers can be successfully vaccinated for about £650 each.
The badger cull currently underway in Cornwall demonstrates why it is so difficult to develop a rational approach to rural areas.  I can’t think of any other government policy which is so defiantly at odds with science or common-sense.  We really are living in an age of “post-truth” politics in which emotions, rather than facts, decide what we have to do.  Perhaps next week’s column should be written entirely in emojis ☹.

Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Harvest home

It’s official – summer ends today.  And once again I have failed to harvest nature’s bounty from the garden: the redcurrants and blackcurrants remain unpicked, the birds ate all the cherries weeks ago and if I don’t pull my finger out this week, the apples will go the same way.
I did manage to pick the plums, strawberries and blueberries, but only because last year I managed to repair the fruit cage. Even a very small smallholding requires more time, effort and ingenuity than I can spare to feel fully in control.

When I say that summer ends today, I am of course referring to the official meteorological definition, which started on June 1. This is based on the traditional four-seasons Gregorian calendar – and from tomorrow will have poets banging on about the “mists and mellow fruitfulness” of September.
The alternative definition of summer is based on astronomy, and starts and ends roughly 20 days later. It’s usually a better guide because it’s based on the 23.5-degree tilt of the Earth’s rotational axis as we orbit the sun – and gives us real equinoxes and solstices, rather than just dates in the diary.
I’m afraid that neither definition gives me much excuse for watching my amateur attempts at small-scale food production end in such dismal failure. It’s not as if I don’t know what to do. I remember my grandma telling me of how, when she was a girl before the First World War, harvest-time was probably the major event of the year. In those days, children from rural areas would almost certainly never go to school during harvesting – there was much more important work for them to do in the fields.
It was a period of not more than a few weeks when whole communities came together to bring in nearly all the crops, for humans and livestock, that would be needed for much of the following year. Those were days when food rarely travelled more than the county border, and the 20th century’s takeover of food policy by “manufacturers” and supermarkets probably explains why harvest time now has little relevance to those who spend most of their lives in towns and cities.
But in rural North Cornwall, now is the time to avoid our country lanes unless you want to spend the day reversing out of the path of a monster combine harvester, or a tractor and trailer laden with potatoes, hay or sileage. Such is the imperative to get the harvest in that these powerful , noisy vehicles go up and down the lanes all day, and much of the night, shattering the townies’ myths about rural tranquillity.
The holidays are not yet over, yet some primary schools will soon be holding harvest festivals. They too are already too late for Lammas day, traditionally marked with a freshly baked loaf and held on August 1 to celebrate the first reaping of the wheat crop.
Harvest festivals – and many rural agricultural fairs – still see their share of corn dolls. These were traditionally made out of the last sheath of the harvest, to be placed on banquet tables when parishes had huge feasts.
A few weeks from now, we will be encouraged to look out for the harvest moon. This is the full moon that occurs closest to the autumn equinox (September 22 or 23) and is the astronomical event which explains why most churches hold their harvest festivals on the closest Sunday.
I’m now off to the orchard to fill a few sacks with apples, but I know that the birds will still end up with far more than I do.

Monday, 29 August 2016

The Labour Party might be Marxist - but it's Groucho, not Karl

I don’t think I know Ben Crawford, but apparently in 2014 and 2015 he “showed support for the Green Party on Twitter.”  Which is why he has now been sent this letter from the Labour Party:

As the late, great, Groucho Marx once said: “I don’t want to belong to any club that would accept me as one of its members.”
My advice to Ben is “keep trying.”  Labour Party leadership elections seem likely to become annual events.  The first time I applied, in the East End of London in the 1970s, I was told: “sorry, we’re full.”

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Revolutionaries in green wellies

You have to wade through a fair amount of fertiliser in this game (journalism, I mean) but this weekend’s government announcement that it would guarantee European Union farm subsidies until 2020 came very close to overlapping the top of my wellies.
 While it does allow an element of comfort for the immediate post-Brexit future, there are three important points which the spin doctors completely failed to mention – the first is that there are no guarantees about anything after 2020, EU farm subsidies will continue to be paid by Brussels until almost 2020 anyway, and there has to be a general election in or before 2020.

At the same time that our MPs were chanting their predictable hallelujah chorus about this “Brexit guarantee,” a far more significant announcement was coming from the National Trust. Last week the Trust put forward a suggestion about agricultural subsidies which had most farmers, and government ministers, spluttering in disbelief.
The National Trust might previously have been thought of as the bank-of-last-resort for hard-up aristocrats looking for a way to spruce up their stately home. It had certainly never been seen as a hot-bed of revolutionary subversion. And yet now it wants to break the 43-year link between taxpayers’ money and food production.
Ever since Britain joined the Common Market in 1973, our farmers have benefited from one of the biggest tax-and-spend schemes the world has ever seen. Introduced in the aftermath of post-war famine in Europe, the Common Agricultural Policy encouraged food production ahead of all else. Food is now abundant and cheap. But the impact on the countryside has been catastrophic, as farms industrialised, and science and technology made the face of rural Cornwall unrecognisable to those who knew it only 50 years ago – 60% of native species have declined over this period.
Now that we are on our way out of Europe, Westminster rather than Brussels will be deciding a national strategy for food and farming. We do not know what will happen to the £3billion subsidies after 2020. It does look as if hundreds of thousands of European workers who pick fruit and vegetables, doing hard, low-paid jobs, may lose the right to come to Britain.
That is why the debate which the National Trust has now joined is so important. Because the Trust not only wants to use Brexit as an opportunity to end payments for owning land – it wants to divert that money to reward farmers who improve the environment and help wildlife.
According the Trust’s director general, Dame Helen Ghosh: “The subsidy system is broken. It is not working. Farmers are going out of business. The state of wildlife is in steep decline and large parts of that are because of intensive agriculture.
“The vote to leave the EU allows us to think radically about the future of the entire system.
“Taxpayers should only pay public subsidy to farmers in return for things that the market won’t pay for but which are valued and needed by the public. The current system rewards people for the hectares they own, with very inadequate standards for wildlife and the environment,” she said.
The National Farmers Union warned that such approach risks increasing food prices. “Farmers take their responsibilities as custodians of the countryside seriously,” it said. “But in this debate we must not forget that food production is vital. We should not be contemplating doing anything which will undermine British farming’s competitiveness or its ability to produce food.
“To do so would risk exporting food production out of Britain and for Britain to be a nation which relies even further on imports to feed itself.”
But there are some very good reasons why the political classes would be wise to listen to the National Trust. It has more than four million card-carrying, subscription paying members. If it was a political party, it would be more than eight times bigger than any of the mainstream combatants.
The National Trust also owns more than 600,000 acres of farmland and has more than 2,000 tenants. It is Britain’s largest farmer.

Monday, 22 August 2016

I’ve just voted for Jeremy Corbyn to be Labour Party leader

Which makes my vote one of the 650,000 that will be cast in this election.  The Conservative Party membership currently stands at 150,000.

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

An apple a day

 It looks like it’s going to be an excellent year for my apples. I got the trees pruned hard last year – for the first time in decades – and the results are astonishing.

The trees are now smaller, allowing more light into the garden and making it much easier to reach the weeds and cut the grass underneath. And yet already the branches are groaning under the weight of Lord Hindlip’s finest.
You might not have heard of Lord Hindlip. He was a Conservative politician of the Victorian era, from Worcestershire, who gave his name to a very fine desert apple.
I’m biased, of course, but I do think the Lord Hindlip apple is one of the tastiest fruits you can grow in Britain. You can also use it for cooking; this year I think I will have to make industrial quantities of juice, if the apples are not to go to waste.
Many years ago, when the orchard in the top field was part of a working farm, part of the labourers’ wages would have been paid in cider. It is interesting to see how the revival of Cornwall’s craft cider industry is boosting the rural economy.
Hardly a day passes now without someone starting a new micro-cider farm somewhere in Cornwall. Most will have started their cider-making as a hobby. Many now work at it full-time and some even employ one or two people to help.
In all the fuss over the Brexit debate recently, one of the facts that tended to be overlooked was that the UK government had successfully resisted the siren calls of Brussels to levy a tax on small-scale cider producers.
The European Commission had wanted British cider brought into line with the rest of the EU. The exemption, worth about £2,700 a year since 1976, had been under threat. But former Chancellor George Osborne listened to the advice from the Campaign for Real Ale and maintained the tax break for those cider makers who produce less than 12,000 pints per year – which is 80 per cent of the domestic cider market.
As we head towards Philip Hammond’s first, post-Brexit budget this autumn, I wonder if there will be any further encouragement for local food and drink producers.
It is such a shame that these days most of us buy our apples from supermarkets – 482,000 tonnes a year. Yet just two varieties, Gala and Braeburn, both natives of New Zealand, make up almost half of British sales.
According to the National Fruit Collection, we could eat a different home-grown apple every day for six years and still not have sampled them all. There are no doubt commercial reasons for this, not least economies of scale.
My Lord Hindlips keep well for up to two months, but after that they get a bit soft. And because, while they still hang from the trees, I tend to share them with birds and insects, they sometimes bear the scars of battle. I doubt they would sell very well in New Zealand. I’m not rushing to negotiate my own post-Brexit trade agreement.